Tuesday 15 September 2020

Strong Fairy Tale Heroines #28: 'THE HEN IS TRIPPING IN THE MOUNTAIN'

'Will you be my sweetheart?'

This story was collected by Jørgen Moe in Ringerike, eastern Norway, and published in Asbjørnsen & Moe’s Norske Folkeeventyr in 1852; it’s a good example of ATT Type 311, Rescue by the Sister. In this type of tale, three sisters set out on some adventure, the two eldest fail and the youngest rescues them: the Welsh Romany tale, The Three Sisters, #2 in this series is a striking and unusual example. In this kind of story princes do not feature, and there is rarely any wedding at the end.

The best-known example is probably the Grimms’ tale Fitcher’s Bird (KHM 46), a dark and curious tale which goes like this: a wizard kidnaps one of three sisters to be his wife, and like Bluebeard forbids her to open a particular door in his house. He also gives her an egg which she must carry about and keep with her. When the wizard is out, the girl looks into the forbidden room and finds a basin of blood and human body parts. She drops the egg and gets blood on it which she cannot remove. The wizard returns and kills her.  

The same thing happens to the second sister; the third sister, however, is clever enough to put the egg safely away before looking into the forbidden room. There, finding her sisters dead and in pieces, she gathers the parts together and brings them back to life. The returning wizard believes he has been obeyed (seeing no sign of blood on the egg) and wants her for his bride. From now on he has no power over her. 

She tells him to carry a basket of gold to her parents’ house as a dowry, but hides her sisters under the gold (feasibility has no place in fairy tales), ordering him not to rest or sit down on the way, for she will be watching him from the window. The wizard toils under the burden, but each time he tries to rest one of the sisters calls out. Certain that his betrothed is watching him, he carries the sisters and the gold to their home. Back at his house, the girl prepares a marriage feast and invites the wizard’s friends. She sets a skull in the window, wreaths it with bridal flowers, smears herself with honey and rolls in feathers till she looks like ‘a wondrous bird’, and sets off home. On the way she meets the arriving guests who greet her in rhyme as ‘Fitcher’s Bird’ coming from ‘Fitcher’s house’; the disguised girl tells them that all is ready and the bride is peeping from the window. As soon as the wizard and all his friends are in the house, her brothers and kinsmen arrive (warned by her sisters), barricade the doors and burn it down with the wizard and his crew inside. 

The Hen Tripping in the Mountain is a lot more rustic and comical than Fitcher’s Bird, and the troll is so simple and stupid and cowardly that it’s hard not to feel a tiny bit sorry for him.

There was once an old woman who lived with her three daughters way up under a mountain ridge. She was so poor she owned nothing but a hen, the apple of her eye. It was always cackling at her heels and she was always running after it. Well one day, the hen vanished. The old woman went round and around the cottage searching and calling, but the hen was gone, and there was no finding it.

            So the woman told her eldest daughter, ‘You’ll have to go out looking for our hen. We have to get it back – even if we have to dig it out of the the hill.’

            The daughter went off looking and calling for it. She went all over, here and there, but no trace of the hen could she find, till just as she was about to give up, she heard someone calling from over by the cliffs, 

Your hen is tripping in the mountain!
Your hen is tripping in the mountain!

So she headed that way to see what it was, but right by the cliff foot she fell through a trap door, deep, deep down into an underground vault. At the bottom she made her way through many rooms, each finer than the first, but in the innermost room a big ugly mountain troll came up to her and said, ‘Will you be my sweetheart?’

            ‘No I won’t!’ she said, ‘not at any price!’ She wanted to get back above ground at once, and find her lost hen. Then the mountain troll was so angry he took her up and wrung off her head, and threw her head and her body down into the cellar.

            While this was going on, her mother sat at home waiting and waiting, but no daughter came back. She waited a while longer, and then told her middle daughter to go our and call for her sister, and, she added, ‘you can call for our hen at the same time.’

            So the second sister went out, and the same thing happened to her; she went about calling and looking, and she too heard a voice from the rock face saying, 

Your hen is tripping in the mountain!
Your hen is tripping in the mountain!

            This was very strange, she thought, so she went to see what it could be, and she too fell through the trap door, deep, deep down into the vault. Then she went through all the rooms to the innermost one, where the mountain troll came up to her and asked if she would be his sweetheart? No, she would not! All she wanted was to get above ground again and look for her hen which was lost. So the troll got angry and wrung her head off, and threw head and body down into the cellar. 

            Well, when the old woman had sat and waited seven lengths and seven breadths for her second daughter, and no sign of her was to be seen or heard, she said to the youngest, ‘Now you really will have to go out after your sisters. It was bad enough to lose the hen, but it would be much worse to lose both your sisters, and you can always give the hen a call or two at the same time.’

            Off went the youngest girl, and she went up and down hunting for her sisters, and calling the hen, but neither saw nor heard anything of any of them until at last shecame up to the cliff face and heard how something said:

Your hen is tripping in the mountain!
Your hen is tripping in the mountain!

            She too went to see what it was and fell down through the trap door, deep, deep down into the vault. When she reached the bottom she went from room to room, each one grander than the other, but she wasn’t at all scared and took good care to look around her, and she spotted the cellar door and looked through it and there were her sisters lying dead! And the moment she got the door shut, the mountain troll came up to her.

            ‘Will you be my sweetheart?’ he asked.

            ‘Yes, certainly!’ said she, for she could see quite well what had happened to her sisters. And when the troll heard that, he gave her the finest clothes in the world and anything else she asked for, he was so glad that anyone would be his sweetheart. 

            But after she’d been there for a while, there came a day when she was very downcast and silent. The troll asked why she was moping. 

            ‘Oh,’ said the girl, ‘it’s because I can’t get home to my mother. She’ll be hungry and thirsty, I’m sure, and there’s no one to stay with her either.’

            ‘Well you can’t go to her,’ said the troll, ‘but put some food in a sack and I’ll carry it to her.’

            Well she thanked him for this, and said she would. But she put lots of gold and silver at the bottom of the sack, and laid just a little food at the top, and gave the sack to the troll and told him not to look into it. The troll promised he wouldn’t, and set off, but the girl peeped after him through the trap door and saw that when he had gone just a little way, the sack was so heavy he put it down to untie the neck and look inside it.  Then she called out, 

I see what you’re up to!
I see what you’re up to!

'I can still see you!'

            ‘Those are damn sharp eyes you’ve got in your head,’ said the troll, and he didn’t dare to try it any more.             
When he reached the widow’s cottage he threw the sack in through the door. ‘Here’s some food from your daughter. She lacks for nothing!’ he said.

            Now one day, when the girl had been in the hill for a good while longer, a billy goat fell down through the trap door. ‘Who said you could come in, you shaggy-bearded beast?’ said the troll in a fury, and he took the goat and wrung its head off and threw it into the cellar. 

            ‘Oh! What did you do that for?’ said the girl. ‘I could have had that goat to play with; it’s dull enough down here.’

            ‘Well don’t sulk about it,’ said the troll. ‘I can soon bring it back to life, I can,’ and he took a flask which hung on the wall, put the goat’s head back on, smeared it with some ointment out of the flask, and up sprang the billy-goat as frisky as ever.

            ‘Oh ho,’ thought the girl, ‘that flask is worth something, it is!’ So she waited for a day when the troll was out, then took her eldest sister and put her head back on. She rubbed her with ointment from the flask, the way she’d seen the troll do to the billy-goat, and her sister came back to life at once. Then the girl stuffed her into a sack, covered her up with a layer of food, and said to the troll when he came back, 

            ‘My dear friend, it’s time to take some food to my mother again. Poor thing, she must be hungry and thirsty, and with no one to look after her! But you mustn’t look in the sack.’

            The troll was willing to take the sack, all right, but when he had got a bit on the way it was so heavy that that he thought he would see what was in it. ‘No matter how sharp her eyes are, she won’t see me from here,’ he thought. But as he set the sack down to look in it, the girl who was sitting inside called out,

I see what you’re up to!
I see what you’re up to!
            ‘Those are damn sharp eyes you’ve got!’ said the troll, who thought it was the girl in the mountain who was calling. He didn’t dare try looking inside any more, but carried it to her mother’s house as fast as he could, and when he got there he threw the sack in through the door, bawling out, ‘Here’s meat and drink from your daughter! She has everything she wants!’ 

            Well, the girl waited a while longer, and then she did the same thing with her other sister. She set her head back on her shoulders, smeared her with ointment and stuffed her into the sack along with as much gold and silver as would fit. Then she covered everything with a thin layer of food and asked the troll to take it to her mother. This time the sack was so heavy he could barely stagger along under it, so he put it down and was just going to untie the string and look in, when the girl inside shouted:

I see what you’re up to!
I see what you’re up to!

            ‘The deuce you do!’ said the troll. ‘I never knew anyone with such damn sharp eyes!’ and he dared not take another peep, but staggered along to the old woman’s house, threw the sack in through the door and roared, ‘More food from your daughter! You see – she wants for nothing!’

            A few days later when the troll was going out for the evening, the girl pretended to be poorly. ‘There’s no use you coming home any time before twelve midnight,’ she said. ‘I simply won’t be able to get supper ready till then, I’m feeling so sick and feeble.’ But when the troll had gone out, she stuffed some of her clothes with straw and stood this straw girl up in the corner by the hearth with a stirrer in her hand, so it looked as if she were standing there herself. After that she hurried off home and hired a hunter to come with her and stay with them in her mother’s cottage. 

            So when it was twelve midnight, the troll came home. ‘Bring me my food!’ he said to the straw maiden, but she didn’t move or answer. 

            ‘Bring me my food, I say!’ said the troll again, ‘I’m starving!’ Still she didn’t answer.

            ‘Bring the food!’ yelled the troll. ‘Listen to what I say and do what you’re told, or I’ll give you such a wake-up, that I will!’ But the girl just stood there. Then he flew into a terrible rage and gave her such a kick that the straw flew up to the ceiling, and he saw he had been tricked. He searched high and low until he came to the cellar and found both the girl’s sisters were gone. Now he understood what had happened and ran down to the cottage crying,  ‘I’ll pay her out for this!’ but when they saw him coming, the hunter fired. The shot banged out, and the troll mistook it for thunder. He turned in fright and ran for home as fast as his legs would carry him, but just as he reached his trap door, what do you think! – the sun rose, and he burst into pieces.  

Oh, there’s plenty of gold and silver down under that trap door still – if we only knew how to find it!

  Picture credits: Art by Theodor Kittelsen